“Pilgrim Footprints on the Sands of Time”
Exhibit No 54 in the medieval gallery of the Museum of London is a small, pewter brooch. It is in the shape of a scallop shell and has a pilgrim figure embossed in the middle. The brooch (along with similar medieval pilgrim souvenirs) was discovered during routine dredging of the riverbanks along the Thames in London.
The scallop shell is the most well-known pilgrimage badge and one can purchase a metal replica of this brooch in England. When I first saw it in 2002 I wondered how such a precious object, bought 1,250 miles away in the Spanish cathedral city of Santiago de Compostela, had ended up in the River Thames. The pilgrim who bought it had made the long and arduous pilgrimage to the tomb of Saint James (Sant Iago) and back home again. This little brooch would have been proof and a precious reminder of that journey.
The curator of the Medieval gallery suggested that the pilgrim’s descendants might have thrown out what they thought was a worthless souvenir, or it could have been discarded during the Reformation, when owning pilgrimage symbols was dangerous in the new, Anglican England.
As I stood in front of the original brooch, I wondered who the pilgrim was, why he or she had made the long journey to Spain and why the brooch had ended in the river. Having done 800 km of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage two years earlier, with the replica pinned to my hat, I reckoned that I could write a story about this evocative little brooch and its owner far more exciting than it being thrown out as junk or being discarded by frightened puritans. And so the idea for ‘Pilgrim Footprints on the Sands of Time” was born.
My pilgrims would be born in England and would walk to Santiago rather than go by ship as many pilgrims did. They would walk from their village in the South of England to the coast, cross the channel to France and would congregate in Paris before making the long and dangerous trek to Spain. A year of laborious research followed but it wasn’t all books, papers and medieval history! A wonderful resource is a book called the ‘Liber Sancti Jacobi” (the book of Saint James) part of a Codex written by a French priest in 1137 which gives details of the route from Paris to the Pyrenees and all the way to Santiago de Compostela.
In 2004 I flew to Paris and after visiting the Tour St Jacques, the Louvre and other pilgrim churches, I set off on the road to Spain, following the path my pilgrims would have used in the 12th century. I crossed Roman bridges, stood in front of Romanesque churches, ancient monasteries and cathedrals described in the book, and stayed in pilgrim shelters similar to those my medieval pilgrims would have stayed in. It wasn’t difficult to imagine that I was joining a thong of ghostly pilgrims from the past!
“The Route of St James of Compostela has preserved the most complete material record in the form of ecclesiastical and secular buildings, settlements both large and small, and civil engineering structures. This Route played a fundamental role in facilitating the two-way interchange of cultural developments between the Iberian Peninsula and the rest of Europe during the Middle Ages.”
Sylvia Nilsen, well known in the Camino world for her ‘amaWalker blog’ is a South African freelance writer who has been published in numerous local and international publications.
She has worked as a research agent and editor for a UK-based travel guide publisher and produced several African city and country guides.
Sylvia has walked over 5,000 km of pilgrimage trails in Europe including Paris to Spain, the Camino Frances from St Jean Pied de Port and Roncesvalles to Santiago, from Lourdes to Pamplona, el Ferrol to Santiago, Santiago to Finisterre and from Switzerland to Rome on the Via Francigena. She also walked from Durban to Cape Town as part of the ‘Breaking Free’ team in aid of abused women and children. Sylvia has served as a volunteer hospitalero in Spain and is a Spanish accredited hospitalero trainer having trained over 40 people to serve as volunteers in Spain. She was the Regional Co-ordinator for the Confraternity of St James in South Africa from 2003 to 2010.
In 2009 she started amaWalkers Camino (Pty) Ltd and takes small groups of pilgrims on three weeks walks of the Camino Frances in Spain.
Publication Date: December 2, 2013
A few months after Richard FitzUrse and his fellow knights murder Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, Lord Robert and Lady FitzUrse are instructed by King Henry to make a penitential pilgrimage to the tomb of Saint James the Greater in Spain in order to earn redemption for his disgraced family.
William Beaumont has made a promise to his dead mother and younger sister to go on a pilgrimage to save their souls. William is secretly in love with Alicia Bearham, niece of Lord Robert. He is overjoyed when he is asked to accompany the family and their servants on their three-month pilgrimage.
They face many adversities, dangers, and an attempted murder on the long and hazardous journey across England, France and Spain. Who is trying to kill Sir Robert and Alicia? What does the gypsy woman they meet in Paris mean when she predicts that Alicia and William are destined to be soul mates, but only when the eleventh flaming star returns to the skies and the water carrier rises over the horizon? One fateful night, a shocking event changes their lives forever.